Posted by: gcarkner | October 12, 2012

Albert Borgman on Technology

Albert Borgmann: a Philosopher of Technology

Albert Borgmann, a University of Montana philosopher of technology, gave a thoughful GFCF lecture last November 2011. Some of us had lunch with him at Sage’s Bistro at UBC following the lecture to pick his brain. Like Sam in the last blog post, he wants us to reflect on how technology is changing us, how it is more than a way of getting things done more efficiently or conveniently. Borgmann believes there is more than meets the eye, that technology is a form of culture that shapes our lives, values and relationships in certain ways, even if we are unaware of it. In general, technology claims and promises liberty and prosperity, to make life less burdensome and make us more wealthy and comfortable.

He believes that up to 1950, we had the ‘constructive phase’ of technology where in general it was supportive of human well-being; after that, according to Borgmann, we entered the ‘degenerative phase’ where technology became a burden and a distraction from important relationships, values and priorities. It now offers the good, the bad and the really bad. Thus we need discernment in order to engage technology critically, to see both its benefit and harm. For example, he suggests that the internet with its incredible online resources can help us much in our research or to keep in touch with colleagues or friends around the globe, to help us solve problems. But he cautions that we should not make cyberspace the centre of our lives, or lose our self in the overwhelming amount of opinion and ‘information’.  Technology, simple or complex, should support life not dominate or destroy it (e.g. addictive gaming, plagiarism or pornography).

Matter & Spirit: There is a contemporary change in the vision of reality (a change in ontology if you will). Technology is always a way of taking up reality, engaging reality, possibly even manipulating reality. According to Borgmann, we are experiencing a concerning ‘dematerialization of reality’ at the moment; even our language of matter (science) is removed from everyday experience, abstracted. We are becoming disembedded from society–disincarnate. Borgmann is concerned about this dematerialization of culture, resulting in a dispirited experience, with a distracted kind of idolatry. He noted that “We did not see it coming; we did not plan it, but here it is; this current culture of technology has surprised us.” Blessings and joy have become mere pleasures, a commodity without endurance, ephemeral. We early twenty-first century citizens of planet earth have failed to address the issues; we are not meeting that challenges very well; we tend to be asleep at the wheel. See his book Power Failure as an analysis of this problem.

Borgmann is bullish on embodiment, on recovery of sacred events and moments in life. We were put together to be richly in touch with the world. Technology can impoverish us (makes things too easy, produce a state of hyper-reality and pseudo-experience). It disengages us from our bodily existence, from fragrance, temperature, sounds and sights. There is a richer context of world, of which we are no longer fully aware. He adjures us: climb a mountain, ride your bike to work, feel the early morning fog on your face, walk in the rain, talk to a neighbour in person over the fence; slow down and experience life’s nuances (sabbath). He warns us like a contemporary prophet not to implode into cyberspace or become too dependent on technology for our identity, to hold off on the eye candy.

Problem of Moral & Cultural Commodification: Again he worrries that we are disembedding or becoming detached and disengaged with respect to time, space  and community. Commodification of life and culture (even Christianity) is twinned with mechanization. The massive machinery behind much technology today is hidden from view;  our competencies are made less and less necessary. As machines become more empowered in amazing ways, we are subtly becoming disempowered in our skill set as humans. This is detrimental to Christian faith not because it confronts it directly but because it wears it down over time, pushes it to the margins. The losses to us are three-fold: historical, redemptive and celebratory.

Historical: Christianity is contained within technology as one option (a thing) available as a commodity. It is thereby uprooted from history, decontextualized, reduced tragically. We need to recover, restore history as a force, a teacher. Pre-1780 we had the village, the family stories, the village church community and the home business or trade-craft with mentorship (often a parent). This technology was comprehensible and useful for daily life; it supported us and gave us meaning in our work. This has all changed and now we are overwhelmed and mystified by technology; we do not really understand it.

Redemptive: Here he refers to our moral and physical frailty. We always look for quick technological fixes to our problems rather than looking for a profound redemptive and definitive moment (kairos), or meaning in our suffering. Borgmann claims that we must recover the richer text and context of life, to live in it and through it to our fullest human experience, including our suffering and dependence on God and others. Technology makes it harder to be moral and spiritual beings; it can take away our initiative and sense of responsibility for the Other. It can make others appear as a commodity to be used at will, or just ignored. Step back from this nihilistic abyss warns our philosopher.

Celebratory: The eucharist is one of the highest human symbols of thanksgiving and appreciation of the giftedness of life. But so is the common family meal (a sacrament of everyday life and human communion) where we all help to prepare it, reconnect and gather regularly to be together with one another. Dinner together can become a ‘focal occasion’ to recalibrate our sense of self and process diverse and sometimes confusing life experiences. The celebratory is inclusive, transformative, joyful, resplendent. This is threatened by tech-driven consumption if we watch TV, check our messages, or play video games over supper.  Our spiritual sensibilities become blunted; we become dull as persons. Conveniences of a technological age and culture can both empower us certainly, but also pull us away from essential life and spirit, depleting our humanity.

Gord Carkner

Further Reading:

Quentin Schultze, Habits of the High Tech Heart.

Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (2003)


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